Can we achieve equality in ICTs for women and girls?
In recent years there has been a growing focus on promoting ICTs among women and girls to foster gender equality and greater participation in the developing Information Society. This post discusses some of the challenges and suggests possible remedies.
World Telecommunications and Information Society (WTIS) Day is celebrated on 17 May to mark the establishment of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) the United Nations organisation specialising in ICTs. This year’s theme for WTIS is “Women and Girls in ICT”. In his call to action, ITU Secretary General, Dr. Hamadoun Touré, challenged countries to recognise the importance of women to society and the imperative to ensure gender equality:
…Women are the bedrock of our societies. They are the pillars of strength in every family and community. Yet gender inequalities remain deeply entrenched…
… Gender equality is a basic human right enshrined in the UN Charter, and it is one of the main objectives of the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). ICTs are tools that can help accelerate progress towards achieving this target, and it is for this reason that ITU Council proposed that we focus our efforts this year on women and girls, using the power of ICTs to provide new digital opportunities to end discrimination and empower the female half of the world’s population to achieve their rightful place as equals in the world… (Source: ITU)
Although we in the Caribbean might take comfort in the fact that we have made considerable strides over the years to ensure that girls in particular are treated equitably, there are still concerns that girls and women are not adequately represented in the tech and ICT fields. In recognition of WTIS and this year’s theme, we will explore some of the issues and challenges, and then ways in which the presence of girls and women in technology can be improved.
Key issues and challenges
At international/diplomatic levels, there are a number of conventions and agreements that recognise the importance of girls and women and demand the acceding member countries to foster, at the national level, equality between the genders across a broad range of sectors, issues and interests. However, as noted by Hon. Julian Robinson, Minister of State in the Ministry of Science, Technology, Energy and Mining in Jamaica at a panel discussion held at the University of the West Indies (Jamaica), last night, females typically outnumber males across the education systems and even in the office. Nevertheless, he was also quick to highlight that at the senior management, executive and board levels within organisations, men tend to predominate.
These observations are consistent with some of our earlier findings as reflected in Breaking the glass ceiling: 5 reasons why women have not excelled in the tech sector, where we noted that although female enrolment at university generally outstrips that of men by 2 to 1, that ratio can be reversed in favour of men, and with much wider disparities with regard to IT and Engineering study.
Second, although many women take up opportunities to attend university and to be financial independent, socialisation – especially societal and cultural norms –has a considerable influence over girls, and the choices that they make as they develop into women, and beyond. Additionally, organisational culture might not always support women working in the tech field, or encourage those that might have ambitions of securing senior management positions.
Finally, limited access to telecoms and the relatively high cost for service creates a barrier to empowerment, which tends to be strongly reflected across gender lines. Management and Communication Consultant, Kay Osborne argues that if telecoms rates are reduced, it would go a long way to improve the lot of women to access and harness those services thereby improving the gender balance.
Over the last few weeks we have updated our Snapshot series, and have published new findings for mobile/cellular and Internet spend across the Caribbean. Although to varying degrees rates might be improving, last year’s Snapshots on the affordability of telecoms services recognised that relative to income, rates are still too high in the region, which would affect how, and the extent to which, persons use those services. Moreover, data/Internet services subscription is still quite low across the region, which again limits persons’ exposure to IT, and their ability to more fully participate in the Information Society.
Transitioning from “Cinderella” to “Cyberella”
Relative to men, women are primarily users of technology – Cinderellas, but in order to become creators and designers and to capitalise on technology in more meaningful ways (Cyberellas), below are a few suggestions to change the existing paradigm.
Improve telecoms access and pricing. In a number of countries across the Caribbean the legislative and policy frameworks for telecoms and ICT are actively being reviewed or updated, which provides opportunities to improve the enabling environment for the take-up and use of technology. Additionally, many countries have made provision for Universal Access/Universal Service to facilitate access to telecoms services, particularly in circumstances when it might not be economically feasible for the telcos to do so. While implementing these mechanisms does have their challenges, they can be optimised in order to improve the existing environment.
Increase STEM numbers. Girls and women should be encouraged to pursue studies in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). While at the secondary school levels across the Caribbean, girls have been excelling in Mathematics and the Sciences, for example, they are no longer as prominent in Technology and Engineer programmes at the universities. One way this deficiency can be addressed is via mentoring, and targeted activities that speak to the opportunities that exist.
Revisit socio-cultural messages. Without a doubt, this point is considerably easier said than done, but it is the most critical component in any initiative to improve the equality of girls and women in ICT. Access and pricing to telecoms can be improved, and the comprehensive support structure can be in place to encourage girls to consider STEM fields for careers, but if the messages at home, in the workplace, and in the wider society do not also foster this, the entire effort can be undermined.
Image (Girl playing The Sims 3 at Igromir 2011) courtesy of Sergey Galyonkin, flickr